IBEC Bringing Broadband Communications To Rural Areas Through Power Lines


A Huntsville, Ala.-based company that's developed technology for providing Internet communications through electric power lines wants to change that.

International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) already has trials of its technology under way and is partnering with IBM to establish Broadband over Power Line (BPL) networks for nearly 200,000 rural customers served by seven electrical cooperatives in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Virginia.

"There are 865 rural electric cooperatives that cover almost half of the homes in the U.S. and 75 percent of its land mass," said Steven Turner, chief operating officer at IBEC, in a recent interview. Speaking more like an evangelist than a businessman, he describes how critical broadband communications are in attracting businesses to rural areas and improving the quality of life of residents. "As you can see, we're pretty passionate about this," he said.

He also emphasized how these areas lack broadband access because of low population density, not necessarily because they are "poor."

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Founded in 2003, IBEC developed proprietary BPL technology that modifies radio signals to transmit voice and Internet data over electric utility power lines. The technology includes a broadband regenerator unit, a customer access unit and a customer premises equipment modem that subscribers plug into existing electrical outlets.

"While DSL and cable modem service providers are competing head-to-head in many urban areas, neither is feasible in low-density, underserved areas where DSL requires significant telephone network upgrades, and cable data is not economically viable," said IBEC CEO Scott Lee, in a statement. "The only broadband choice for many consumers in rural areas is satellite data service, which does not offer comparable data rates and is more costly than wire line services."

IBEC said the cost of its technology works out to $150 per customer at seven homes per mile, compared to $800 for DSL, $1,200 for cable and as much as $3,000 for fiber connections.

While the potential market covers 865 electrical cooperatives with 37 million customers, IBEC is focusing on 196 cooperatives with approximately 7.5 million customers where technical conditions are ideal and there are very limited or no broadband alternatives. IBEC supplies the cooperatives with the BPL equipment and the cooperatives do the billing and collection in return for a percentage of revenues.

IBEC has partnered with IBM Global Services, which is serving as project manager and systems integrator for the IBEC initiative, as well as providing technical expertise and training the line crews who install the BPL technology. IBM's role in the project dovetails with its "Smarter Planet" initiative, which includes development of "smartgrids."

Initially launched using angel funding, IBEC more recently has been funded through low-interest Rural Broadband Access loans from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Program.

IBEC's efforts could get a major boost through funding for broadband access included in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill. Turner said the company intends to go after a piece of that once the rules for applying are published, expected sometime next month.